Controversially, Stuart Peel argues here that England’s hero may actually be harming England’s chances in the World Cup – have your say by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page.
It is now less than a week until England commence their quest to launch the first ever successful defence of the Web Ellis Cup. The team’s problems since that momentous night in Sydney are well-known. The instalment of Brian Ashton as coach at the start of the year was supposed to herald the introduction of a multi-dimensional attacking game and the dormant chariot was expected to finally creak back into action for an at least creditable defence of the trophy.
Nobody expected Ashton to work his magic overnight. However the August warm up matches certainly did not breed a great deal of optimism that England have developed a coherent and threatening attacking strategy – the stagnant performances against France yielded more questions than answers and the key one which Ashton must remedy surrounds his talisman.
This may be sacrilege in England rugby circles, but Jonny Wilkinson’s role in the team can create imbalance in attack. His ongoing quest for excellence is well-documented and there is no doubt that he is up there with the finest to have ever worn the red rose.
However in his eagerness to clear every ruck, be the best runner and be all things to all men, he can sometimes forget to actually play fly-half. On one occasion in Marseilles, England strung together 11 phases of possession – Wilkinson took the ball at first receiver only once, and that was from the original set piece. Instead we had Shaw, Regan, Lewsey et al. receiving the ball stationary in an orthodox fly-half position rather than tearing at pace on to a Wilkinson pass. Where was Jonny? On most occasions he was clearing out at the ruck.
In order to develop a structure and string together several coherent phases and systematically break the opposition down, you need your General pulling the strings. His role is to organise and distribute, to make sure the right people are in the right places at the right time in order to accurately execute what needs to be done.
Wilkinson is now a senior member of the team. He has always been eager to almost do too much, and in 2002 Steve Thompson and Ben Cohen seemed to spend more time at first receiver than he did. But the team of 2001-03 had characters that could look after Wilkinson and ensure that first and foremost, he played fly-half.
Now it is down to Ashton to ensure that the jewel in England’s crown doesn’t become a hindrance to the team’s progress. If the big men are to hit the ball at pace and make yards, and the speedsters are to receive the ball in space at the right time, they need to know how and when the ball will be distributed to them. Wilkinson’s habit of shuffling laterally, looking for a gap and trying to offer something unique makes it very hard for the rest of the team to fulfil their roles.
Do not get me wrong – Wilkinson is a wonderful player. Before he arrived, never had a kicker been so unerringly accurate; never had a fly-half been the team’s most destructive defender. The standard of goal-kicking around the world has elevated in response, and the age of the non-tackling fly half is long gone. These will be among his legacies, but now, England don’t necessarily want the best rugby player in the world, they want the best fly-half.
Dan Carter, to whom Wilkinson is often compared, is a fantastic goal-kicker, a solid defender and a terrific runner. But first ultimately, he does the bread and butter; he organises and distributes and his team-mates play around him. England need something similar from Wilkinson in France.
If Ashton is to earn his corn and put together a dominant attacking structure in time for the World Cup, he needs to ensure that his best all-round player is his best fly-half as well.